Father Time

Much of our concept of fatherhood is culturally inherited. Motherhood and fatherhood may begin biologically, but the lifespan is cultural. For parents who adopt children, they know that parenting means providing a safe home with love and guidance regardless of conception. The ways in which we parent are largely codified in our cultural DNA.

Fathers’ Day was created in Spokane Washington over a century ago by a woman who was one of six children raised by a widower. It was an attempt to create an equivalent celebration to Mothers’ Day. While the initial Mothers’ Day celebrations sought to promote peace and reconciliation after The Civil War, the impetus for a Fathers’ Day was actually a sermon  delivered in July 1908 honoring the memory of 362 men who had died earlier in the year in a coal mine explosion in West Virginia. The first Fathers’ Day was celebrated in Washington State on July 19, 1910. Certainly there was a commercial aspect that drove Mothers’ Day in a way that was not quite captured in Fathers’ Day (i.e. flowers). With The Depression, retailers began promoting neckties, pipes, socks, hats and sporting goods. During World War 2, advertisers began promoting Fathers’ Day as a way to support the war effort and honor American troops. It was not a federal holiday, but it was an American institution. It was in 1972 that Fathers’ Day officially became a federal holiday. Meanwhile, it has been an economic boon for nearly a century, and has reinforced cultural concepts of fatherhood.

In the 21st century, the cultural expectations of fatherhood are rapidly changing. Some of our artifacts of cultural notions of fatherhood are contained in television shows from the last sixty years. Television, especially sitcoms, were never about reality, of course. They were simplified versions of aspects of society. In some ways they are ridiculous, which is also what makes them enjoyable. In honor of Fathers’ Day, I have compiled a very brief list of favorite TV dads. This is by no means comprehensive. I selected shows that had the word “father” or “dad” in the title, with the exception of a few, as examples of shows where the family revolved around the father, or the parent child relationship was with a single father. There are many, many more examples of fathers on television, and I did include a few that have fathers as the main character, even if there are ensemble casts. This sampling is merely that–some examples that reflect cultural attitudes about fathers and their kids and the times in which they lived. In many ways, these shows are as much about how time and place have become cultural references as well as our notions of fatherhood. These shows depict other, larger cultural forces, even as they revolve around representations of fatherhood.

First and foremost,”father” has been the (economic) provider. Very generally, there are the two types of fathers on television, especially in the middle of the 20th century: the comfortable middle (or upper middle) class father who is the provider and gentle sage; or the bumbling dad who never seems to know what’s going on at home. Of course, these two themes were (and are still) played out as the notion that the mother is the primary caregiver, homemaker, etc, even when she also works outside the home (which we don’t really see on tv until the 1980s). There are several examples of fathers or father figures without mothers. In those cases, there is often a substitute homemaker-usually live-in help. No messy spousal arguments. Just warm, fatherly advice, and someone else to take care of the logistics of the home.

So, here’s a brief list of the father archetypes from American television, from shows that revolve around the father:

Father Knows Best 1954-1960

Archetype of the fifties male (and kept woman). White. Midwestern? Suburban.Compliant kids. Calm, sagacious father. (Robert Young)

Bachelor Father 1957-1962

Handsome, wealthy Beverly Hills attorney with chinese “houseboy”. Bentley Gregg (John Forsythe) is the uncle who adopts his teenage niece. He provides economic and emotional security (in white Beverly Hills) for her while both of them support each other emotionally as they navigate the (bland) dating scene.

Make Room for Daddy 1953- 1964

Dad the professional entertainer. White upper middle class. Urban. Young, beautiful wife. Smart mouthed son and adorable daughter.The often frustrated dad (Danny Thomas) is trying to navigate his way at home .

My Three Sons 1960-1972

Widowed aeronautical engineer Steven Douglas (Fred Mac Murray) raising 3 sons with old crotchety father-in-law or uncle (depending on season). Steve is the calmest most zen-like dad ever. The sons are, likewise, rather easygoing. White. Suburban. bland. Middle class.

Family Affair 1966-1971

Another well-to-do uncle adopting kids. NY high rise living in the sixties (that was not much like the real sixties). Uncle Bill (Brian Keith) is a civil engineer who, with the help of his butler, Mr. French, is also the calm, sagacious, father figure for the teenage Cissy, and the young twins, Buffy and Jody. White. Urban. Upper-middle class.

The Courtship of Eddie’s Father 1969-1972

Beginning of the sensitive guy (played by Bill Bixby). Another widower of the professional class, this time magazine publishing, who is raising his young son and navigating the dating scene. His son Eddie is more invested in his father’s dating life than child characters in previous shows. Meanwhile, Mrs. Livingston, the Japanese housekeeper, also provides eastern wisdom.

Sanford and Son 1972-1977

Poor African American widower living with single adult son trying to make it . This is a new type of program for the time, showing an African American experience (as did other shows of the seventies), and life in the Watts area of South Central Los Angeles.  The son, Lamont, desiring independence, must take care of his troublemaking father. A decidedly different kind of tv father-figure.

The Cosby Show 1984-1992

Upscale, professional, urban, African American.80s. Changing roles for women across demographic categories and for African Americans of  both genders. Updating wise professional father figure who could also be silly and, at times, clueless of kids’ shenanigans. A bit more sophisticated view of family life, gender and race.

Everybody Loves Raymond 1996-2005:

The classic buffoon dad(s). Ray and his father are clueless. Although the women on the show are the ones seemingly holding the family together, the old cultural ideals of the middle class father are put on display for comedy and as a means to reminding us that fatherhood must continue to evolve.

Modern Family 2009-

Four fathers:  2 Gay dads. 1 Emotive heterosexual dad.  1 Old school remarried, virile (and gruff) patriarch ( Ed O’ Neill, who was also the bumbling and gross Al Bundy on Married with Children 1987-1997). Professional, wealthy dads in the suburbs of LA. White nuclear family extends, marrying Latina (with Latino child) and gay couple adopting Asian child.  A 21st century American family.

Some other favorite tv sitcom dads include: Ward Cleaver (Leave it to Beaver), Archie Bunker (All in the Family), Mike Brady (The Brady Bunch), Dan Conner (Roseanne), Homer Simpson(The Simpsons), Peter Griffin(Family Guy).

Of course there are so many shows that we could examine for insight into cultural attitudes about fatherhood, and I have neglected the Westerns and other genres to the exclusion of sitcoms. However, there are two dramas whose protagonists are unusually interesting as fathers:

The Sopranos 1999-2007

Tony Soprano is  the FAMILY man. Everything is for the family. Which family, is debatable. But, he does love his children desperately, and his children are incredibly important to his character.

Mad Men 2007-

As Mad Men takes place from 1960-1970?, Don Draper is the embodiment of the mid 20th century white suburban upper middle class, then remarried urban, professional father who leaves the care taking of the children to the wife. On the rare occasions when he spends time with his kids, he can be kind and loving, and fun. But his demons are too powerful. He is the anti-hero Dad. Sure, Tony was a mobster, and Don is just an ad man, but Don is too far removed from his kids and can’t share his life with them.

As our cultural notions of fatherhood continue to evolve, it will be interesting to watch. Television has reflected our cultural ideals of fatherhood in perhaps exaggerated and often lighthearted ways. As gender roles continue to evolve, the nature and culture of parenting is evolving. Until we have Parents’ Day, we can spend the third Sunday in June giving time to the fathers in our lives. Their roles will always be about their relationships with their children. It’s father time. Happy Fathers’ Day.

One thought on “Father Time

  1. Love the survey of TV shows focusing on dads thru the different eras. I wish I knew more about TV shows today and how dads are portrayed…I guess Modern Family would be one!


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